BRLT’s ‘Woolf’ intense but plodding

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING --  From left, a young couple, Honey (Bess Yunek) and husband Nick (Tyler Grezaffi),  interact with George (Bill Martin) and wife Martha (Celeste Veillon) during Baton Rouge Little Theater's 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Show caption
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- From left, a young couple, Honey (Bess Yunek) and husband Nick (Tyler Grezaffi), interact with George (Bill Martin) and wife Martha (Celeste Veillon) during Baton Rouge Little Theater's 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'

How much do you really want to know about other people? How much do you really want to face the truth of your own circumstances? The message of Edward Albee’s acclaimed play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is to be really sure you’re up to facing those questions.

Not bad advice for those asking themselves whether to attend the play, which opened on Jan. 18 at Baton Rouge Little Theater, directed by Keith Dixon.

The play is just over a half-century old, and it quickly spawned a multiple Oscar-winning movie. But not everyone has immersed themselves in this intense story, and for understandable reasons. Deceit, denial, dysfunction, lust, rage — suffice it to say that Disney never has, and never will, create a version of this story.

Not that all is grim. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” has its share of humor, but these moments arise like vapors from the surface of the molten pool inside a volcano. Anger is the bubbling lava that produces these lighter moments and pain is the magma that occasionally erupts into verbal abuse and physical violence.

George (played by Bill Martin) is an assistant professor of history in a Northeastern college married to Martha (Celeste Veillon), the college president’s daughter. It is about 2 a.m. when they return from a faculty mixer, and George is none too pleased to learn that Martha has invited a younger couple to stop by for drinks. They are arguing about it when Nick (Tyler Grezaffi), a biologist, and his wife, Honey (Bess Yunek) arrive.

Martin’s version of George is a loathsome kind of academic: aloof, detached, pedantic, taking pleasure in using word trickery to appear smarter than others. He’s a mean piece of work in his cool way, in contrast to his wife’s more direct, snarling, sarcasm, played with pitch-perfect witchiness by Veillon, who is mostly venom to her husband, but overt seductress to her male guest. It is Martha’s booze-fueled energy that carries a lot of this story, and Veillon delivers it.

Nick and Honey are understandably uncomfortable as their hosts lash each other over their shortcomings, but they get sucked into the drama and, as Honey slurps down the bourbon, Nick discovers himself unable to escape. Yunek ably portrays Honey’s descent from tipsy to drunk to sick to sodden. Grezaffi is believable as the scientist who begins the evening as the only adult in the room, but who finds himself in George and Martha’s games, perhaps not realizing that they’re far more experienced at this than he. Before long, he has said more than he should about his own marriage, facts that inevitably get used against him.

Eventually, the roots of both couples’ unhappiness — but especially that of George and Martha — are revealed, rewarding the audience’s endurance. That endurance, however, was tested at the Thursday preview performance more than it needed to be.

With two 10-minute intermissions, BRLT’s production runs a full 3½ hours, which feels about a half-hour too long. The first act moves along well enough, but the second and third acts drag. There are numerous moments when the gaps in dialogue are too long or the actors seem to be plodding about, needing for other cast members to return onstage to keep the story moving.